Sunday, July 10, 2016

James Wolfinger's "Running the Rails"

James Wolfinger is Associate Professor of History and Education at DePaul University. He is the author of Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.

Wolfinger applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry, and reported the following:
What if I told you that Philadelphia was the scene of one of the worst racially motivated hate strikes in World War II? A strike that shut down the nation's third largest war production center less than two months after D-Day.

What if I told you that just three decades earlier, Philadelphia was the scene of one of the few general strikes in U.S. history? A strike that saw some 140,000 people walk off the job and two dozen people get killed.

And what if I told you that both of those immense strikes happened at the same company? And the company operated one of the largest public transit systems in the United States, the last big city privately owned public transportation system in the world by the late 1960s, and one that had a remarkably long history stretching from roughly the 1880s to 1968. You'd probably think something important was happening in labor relations at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company.

I certainly did! And as my research took me beyond these two big strikes, I began to see that Philadelphia's transit system offered an ideal venue to explore the shifting, powerful ways that management employed various techniques to control its workforce. Over the generations, I found that the company used raw violence; company unions and stock purchase schemes; race-baiting; challenges to unionized workers of whether they were truly “American”; and assertions that the profit motive trumped all other reasons to run a transit system. At the same time, I found workers equally creative in adapting to the challenges they faced: organizing unions, going on strikes, and demanding recognition of their right to some control over their work lives.

By examining capital’s efforts at social control over nearly a century, Running the Rails gives readers not just a history of Philadelphia transit workers, but a historically-grounded way to think about issues critical to today: the power of capital in American society, the shifting nature of class relations, the connection between the development of urban space and class conflict, and the problems caused by private ownership of public services, to give a few examples.

Page 99 does not capture the multifaceted nature of capitalist control analyzed in Running the Rails, but it does begin to introduce readers to how management in the 1910s used company unions and a stock purchase plan to control its workforce in ways that remind us of Enron’s machinations not so long ago.
As Mitten gained control over the PRT workforce and cemented his plan, he liked to claim that it was all his own idea and unique in the United States, even the world. “I worked it out of my past experience, which showed the need of cooperation,” he once told the federal Commission on Industrial Relations. “It occurred to me, let us establish that portion of the gross earnings which the company would pay, and then let both work together to get from it the very greatest wage possible for the men. It is the principle, not the percent paid—but the principle.” To the Amalgamated, the plan seemed revolutionary enough that Mahon printed it in its entirety in the union’s journal, with the suggestion that it might offer the next step in industrial relations.

In reality, Mitten’s plan both advanced and captured the broader spirit of labor relations of the time, emphasizing company unions and welfare capitalism that ameliorated the worst excesses of a capitalist economy by giving workers a voice, however moderate, in their work lives and some fringe benefits that went beyond wage compensation. Company unions, as they came to be known, began as employee representation plans (ERPs) in Europe, mostly Great Britain and Germany, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Company unions spread to the United States, beginning, Stuart Brandes found in his study of American welfare capitalism, in Boston at Filene’s department store, where employees joined management in 1898 to form a committee to administer a medical clinic and insurance plan and then established the Filene Cooperative Association Council in 1905. Company unions spread slowly at first, then surged during World War I when the Great War threw American labor relations into turmoil. The United States had 225 company unions in 1919, 725 in 1922, and 814 in 1924. Economists estimated in the early 1920s that some one million American workers had representation from a company union. “It became an accepted axiom of progressive management thought in the 1920s,” wrote Bruce Kaufman in his study of industrial relations, “that an employee representation plan was an essential ingredient of good industrial relations.”
Learn more about Running the Rails at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue